<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Postcards Library
Little Log


Stephanie is one of those persons who can fit a lot of words onto a standard size postcard -- usually by writing sideways, around corners, and even upside down if she can find some extra space. Most of these go to family and friends. But some of them -- those which document our RV adventures -- find their way onto this portion of our website.

POSTCARD: Right Under our Noses

September 21, 2009

Since we moved into our “RV garage with little home attached” in Florence, we’ve prided ourselves on our knowledge of the Central Oregon Coast. We’ve found wonderful get-aways in Bandon, at Bullard’s Beach State Park, and even at at the small but charming Harbor Vista County park right here in Florence. We’ve enjoyed the RV park at the Port of Newport with its proximity to the Newport Aquarium. And we consider ourselves virtual regulars at the Winchester Bay RV Resort.

But we became complacent; and always returned to the same spots. Tom became proficient in getting a TV signal from under the trees at Bullard’s Beach. I was something of an expert on where to take Barney for a “doggy walk”, areas where he might go leash-free. We knew the back roads through Newport, Reedsport and Bandon, which roads to take to avoid weekend traffic. All this, and still we missed two of the most interesting spots on the coast. Two spots within 20 miles of our door.

The first is in Winchester Bay. We always call before we go to this popular RV Resort to check for vacancies. The Chamber of Commerce for the area loads it up with festivals. Dune Fest, various art festivals, car shows, music fests, and a new one (to me), a Crab Bounty hunt. One crab is tagged and returned to the bay. Catch “Captain Umpclaw”, and you can win $1,000! Crabbing is always popular here; for this hunt I’d expect record crowds. Then there’s the Winchester Bay oyster farm, we really enjoy the extra small ones!

But just because the Resort is full does not mean you cannot find a place to stay. Right across the water is Salmon Harbor Marina and RV park. This dry camping park is located on two small peninsulas jutting into the Bay, and on the asphalt area joining them. Each peninsula site is right on the water, with the end sites being a bit more expensive than those on the sides. But at $18, and $14, they’re far less than Winchester Bay Resort (also owned by the Marina). Stay in the area between these, and you’ll only be charged $11. I’ve yet to see this area full -- even on the night of the “Great Burnout”.

The Great Burnout is held the evening before the car show, when the competitors join all the fishermen, crabbers, dune riding ATV folks, and RVers to make one large gathering. Tom described the Burnout best: “A competitor drives in front of the judge, firmly applies the  FRONT brakes (only -- not sure how one does that), and someone pours a bucket of water under each  rear wheel.  Competitor guns the engine, and of course the rear wheels spin on the wet pavement.  And spin, and spin, and spin.  The car "accelerates" (but doesn't go anywhere) and pretty soon the tire gets pretty warm.  Then hot.  Then it really smokes.  The winner is the competitor that creates the most smoke before the first tire blows out!

It only took watching the first two competitors for me to ask, “Why would anyone want to do that?” It must be a guy thing.

Now if we decide we want to go to Winchester Bay to enjoy one of their many festivals, we’ll know we can almost certainly find room at Salmon Harbor -- and be closer to the action!

About 5 miles north of Reedsport, just before the road plunges down to the tiny town of Gardiner, on the right hand side of 101, is a narrow gravel road. The sign here reads, “Sparrow PK Road”. (The “PK” could have meant peak, or park. I hoped we wouldn’t end up climbing a mountain!). From the highway, the road appears to wander west and disappear into the coastal rainforest. Intriguing! I’d remarked several times how much I’d like to explore that road, but it certainly was no road for anything without 4WD.

But one afternoon, as we headed south to pick up some oysters for the weekend, Tom suggested we explore "Sparrow Pk" road. It was such a fabulous discovery that we had earmarked it for our next ATV trip. Yesterday, enjoying some unseasonably warm and sunny coastal weather, we loaded up the Polaris and headed to Sparrow Pk.

The road becomes gravel immediately after leaving 101, and travels downhill for about a mile. Then it wanders through an old clear cut area for about 1/2 mile more, before turning sharply right and continuing on to a thickly wooded area. On our first reconnoitering trip, we’d found it impossible to make a wrong turn; while there are some offshoot roads along the way, they’re either “kelly-bumped” or gated.

It’s just under 4 miles from the 101 to the end of Sparrow Pk. The first 2 miles are narrow and graveled, but smooth. The last 2 are much rougher. We drove slowly and had no problem taking the ATV trailer down the road.

Your reward for driving this road is the beach at its end. The road ends less than 150 yards from the Pacific Ocean. Here, several primitive camp sites have been carved out of the sandy woods -- perfect for those with small trailers, or 4WD truck campers. Today, there was one camper with two parked ATVs in one of the sites, and a couple with a small girl who was enjoying chasing the seagulls. Other than that, we were the only ones on the beach. Tom drove the ATV along the sand with Barney running alongside, barking and jumping in what seemed “doggy delight”. We pegged his top speed at about 30 mph. He even got his first chance to ride *on* the ATV.

While we had the beach virtually to ourselves, we were not the only ones around. Back in the dunes, we saw a sort of encampment, ringed with orange fencing. Inside the fence was a tent, some sort of apparatus stuck high on a pole, and a man with high powered binoculars. He explained that he was using radar to track seabirds -- 4 miles out at sea. Oregon State University is experimenting with making electricity from wave power, and is concerned about seabirds of the area. This guy also tracks birds in wind farm areas and near airport runways.

Our other ATV trips have been in more highly traveled areas around Florence and Reedsport, and have managed to exhaust us in about an hour. Today, on the flat beach, with no other traffic to watch for, we spent almost 2 hours before it was time to head home. We had one last challenge. We wanted to know where we were vis-a-vis Gardiner and Reedsport. Tom had captured our location on his iPhone, but I wanted to see for myself. You can see this amazing place too. Just click here, and be sure to zoom in a bit and check the satellite view.

On the return trip, as we approached the tight turn in the clear-cut, Tom pulled over and we walked up a small hill. Perhaps there’ d be a view over the water, and we could get some bearing on our location. The forest was thick here, and blackberry vines covered the trail. Barney went back, but I continued on to the top of a small rise. I stopped as I walked through a thick spider web, and began to brush away web pieces. Then I looked down at myself. At least 4 large, black, “things” were clinging to my shirt and pants. In retrospect, I think they were grasshoppers -- at the time I shrieked loudly and started brushing my clothes. I set some sort of speed record returning to the car and demanding Tom look me over in case I’d missed one. I look forward to going back to Sparrow Park (that’s what Google called it), but I won’t go wading in blackberry bushes again.

Postcard: The Cards I didn’t Write

August 20, 2009

It’s happened before. I come home from an RV adventure with ideas for a postcard. I’ve written myself some notes, and collected my pictures in an online album (pictures help me remember all the fun times we’ve had). Then, suddenly, something happens, and old postcard ideas take a back seat to new ones. This happened on our latest trip.

I was going to write about the Guaranty Rally, and the side trips we took to Thompson’s Mills and the Scandia Festival in Junction City. I was going to say something like this:

“Even though warm weather closed one window -- a trip to Montana and Idaho, it opened another. Although event registration had officially closed for the Guaranty “Homecoming” Rally in Harrisburg, Oregon, we thought we might squeeze in. Perhaps there had been a cancellation, or maybe there was space for one extra rig. And the latter proved to be the case.

The new River Bend RV Resort is located right on the Willamette River, less than a mile north of town. The RV park has 95 paved sites, a separate motel, and a swimming pool and spa. There’s also a large conference building with restaurant and several meeting rooms. It was perfect for a Guaranty Rally. 50+ coaches attended the rally. 50+ coach owners signed up for free Guaranty RV repair service. 50+ coach owners looked through the “show coaches”, RVs that Guaranty had for sale. 50+ coach owners and spouses enjoyed sumptuous meals each day with entertainment every evening.

When we arrived, we received a packet of information about things to see in the Junction City/Harrisburg/Corvallis area. One small brochure caught my eye -- “Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Site”. The picture on the cover was of an old building overlooking a glassy mill pond. Attached to the building were two tall, white towers. Letters on one spelled, “Thompson’s Flouring Mills”, and “Delicious Flour” with a picture of an apple. On the other a rose, and “Valley-Rose Flour”. A map on the pamphlet showed that the site was within 10 miles of the rally.

So, while Tom attended a talk on RV solar power, I took Barney and headed off to Thompson’s Mills and into Oregon history.

I was early for my 10:30 tour, but there’s little fixed schedule here. Another tour was already underway and no one else was in sight, so I got my own private tour of the mill.

In 1857, Richard “Uncle Dick” Finley was the recipient of a government land grant which gave him the land and the water rights to a large part of the Calapooia River. The water rights were extremely important, as he was able to divert water from the river to run his mill. (He was also able to keep his upstream neighbors from having water; and the hard feelings existed for decades.) The Mill was continuously active until 2002 (except for a two year period, 1862-1864, when it was being rebuilt after a fire). It began as a flour mill, then was used to make animal feed. In the 1980s, the Mill used the water which had once powered the milling machines to make electricity for a local utility. The mill was purchased by the State of Oregon in 2004 and became an historical site in 2007.

At this point in my unwritten postcard, I would have mentioned that I convinced Tom to return with me the following day to tour the Mill. He asked a lot of technical questions about how the mill actually worked. I would have asked him to contribute some technical thoughts to the postcard -- I’m more the historical type. There are some support beams in this mill which actually date from Civil War times! No reconstruction here.

Tours begin in the basement of the building, where the turbines, now inactive but still operable, can be seen through the rushing waters of the mill stream. Carole Boatright, knowledgeable guide and full time RVer, showed me the “beaver door”. Not a doggy door for beavers, but where one trapped animal chewed his way to freedom.

Inside the mill, we stopped at a collection of artifacts found when the State of Oregon purchased the Mill. Carole showed me the grindstones which turned wheat into flour. Then she picked up a rusted piece of metal. It was shaped like a can, with a small hole on top. (Clue: a bag would have covered the hole.) At each side, metal arms could be pushed back and forth. On the bottom, a rectangular piece reminded me of one of the attachments you find on today’s vacuums. And that is exactly what it was. An old advertisement showed a woman using one on her floor!

The first floor of this 5 story building houses the “works” of the mill. An incredible number of augers, chutes and elevators pushed grain along, lifted it up and sent it into waiting bags. A worker would then take the bag, turn around to sew it closed, and turn again to a nearby scale for weighing. What a job. You can still see the hole his shoes wore in the plywood floor...

The quickest way to gain access to the upper floors was by way of an elevator. Not your carpet lined, button pushing elevator; this elevator is a wood floor with four beams in each corner and a rope. A large spike serves as a brake. Kick it free, pull on the rope and off you go. Be sure you have your correct counterweights with you so you don’t go shooting up, out of control!

With the popularity of the mill, a small town sprang up nearby. However, when the expected railroad connections did not materialize, the townspeople realized they had to move. So they dismantled the town of Boston Mills and carted it, roofs, walls and foundations, to the nearby town of Shedd -- the new railroad terminus. Now a large wheat field is the only thing to mark the old townsite.

In this card I didn’t write, I would have told about the Scandia Festival in Junction City. Every year, this small town celebrates its Scandinavian heritage with a four day festival. Each day celebrates either Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish or Danish culture. Eat yourself silly with meat pies and delicious looking pastries, or choose more American foods (lemonade and hot dogs). Learn Scandinavian folk dancing, or how to speak one of these languages. Or just watch the dancers, the lace makers, the spinners and wood carvers as you browse the craft displays.

I would have concluded my postcard by describing how pleased we were to be attending a rally only 70 miles from Florence. We realized that there might be a traffic problem on the way home -- that there would be a neverending stream of cars, trucks and motorhomes towing all sorts of “toys”, heading from the coastal sand dunes to Eugene while we headed west to Florence. But they should have posed no problem for us. Home in a virtual flash. ”

My postcard would have ended there. However, it’s what really happened on the trip home that we remember most clearly. So, the card I wrote is this:

Postcard: Highway 36 to Florence

It’s only 4 miles from Harrisburg to Junction City. Just south of JC, we turned right on Highway 36 and headed to Cheshire. This route will eventually take you to Florence, but first you’ll find yourself wandering around the coast range on what others have described as a very narrow and winding roads. So when we came to the Territorial Highway, we headed south to highway 126, our tried and trusted route home. Usually.

We were a bit surprised to see no oncoming traffic, but with almost non-stop road construction on 126 in the past few weeks, we expected long, car-free spaces. But when we rounded a bend and found ourselves in a long line of stopped traffic, we realized this was something different. We watched in dismay as one car after the other pulled right off the road onto a steep graveled path. Here they made U-turns and reentered the road, heading back the way they’d come. No way could an RV make that kind of turn, with or without a tow.

When we finally got to the head of the line, the emergency worker told us there had been a bad accident on the road ahead. This route to Florence would be closed for at least 4 hours, and we should go back. If we couldn’t make the turn on the graveled road we could follow it east a quarter mile until it intersected 126. And, he added, “it only has a few large holes to watch out for”.

“What if we go on and wait it out?”, Tom asked. “I guess that’s OK,” said the man, sounding somewhat uncertain. “Go on”.

About 1/2 mile further down the road, a neighbor woman was doing much the same thing, stopping cars and warning people that the road ahead was closed, and they could use her driveway as a turnaround. Again, we convinced her that we could wait until the road reopened -- we’d put the satellite dish up and relax.

Down the road again to the third stop. This guy was a cop, and much more authoritative. “It will be at least 5 hours before the road opens to traffic”, he said. “You can use a staging area just ahead to turn around. If a tanker truck can do it, so can you”. We were headed back.

At this point, we had two additional choices. We could spend the night in the Eugene area at the nearby Lane Country Park, or take the detour urged by the Oregon State Patrol. We opted for the detour. It was a bad mistake.

9 miles back, flashing lights and barricades were forcing the westbound traffic to turn right. That detour would take us 7 miles north to intersect with highway 36, then west to Florence. We’d be traveling the same road I’d been concerned about earlier. We had one last choice. Stay in the Eugene area or try the detour. We knew 36 would be winding and narrow; what we didn’t realize was just how winding and narrow it would be. Also, we didn’t fully understand what it would be like with RVs, trucks hauling multiple ATVs, and an occasional big rig taking their half of the road out of the middle. We headed on -- bad mistake, number 2.

For the first few miles, everything seemed OK. Then our long line of traffic approached a stop sign. Here, the Florence bound traffic had to turn left -- across all those cars headed home to Eugene from their weekend on the coast. They weren’t about to slow to let us pass. It seemed to take forever as we inched toward the stop.

The sign that read, “Florence, 55 miles”, wasn’t too encouraging either. We knew that once we got to Mapleton, 14 miles east of Florence, the road would be OK. We’d be back on 126. But that was 41 miles away, 41 incredibly long and difficult miles. The road twisted and turned, with no shoulders and so narrow that, even though Tom was centered in his lane, bushes scratched along the side of the coach. Every so often, a “bonk” from an overhead branch told us this was no road for anything taller than a passenger car. In places the roadbed had eroded away, leaving holes in the non-existent shoulder, and giving this passenger the willies as she looked out the window. Tom was doing the actual driving, but I was with him every mile.

Now the traffic began. RVs, ATVs, cars and trucks of all sizes. It seemed that few of them knew anything about driving this kind of road. Several times, as we rounded a particularly sharp turn, we’d find the oncoming traffic well over the center lane. Twice, Tom had come to a complete stop in order to avoid being sideswiped.

We wondered just what the state patrol had been thinking when they decided on this detour -- with no special cautions for drivers of big rigs. A head on collision had sent all these cars onto this woefully inadequate road. Was the OSP looking for another wreck?

Highway 36 passes some beautiful little towns, not that we had time to admire them, -- Deadwood, Greenwood and Triangle Lake. Triangle is very popular with water skiers, and is ringed with vacation homes. Now we could add pedestrian traffic to the mix.

90 minutes later we arrived at the junction with Mapleton. As we rejoined 126, Tom let out a deep, relieved sigh. “If that wasn’t the most difficult drive I’ve ever had,” he said, “it ranks right up there”.

Back to Florence overnight. When we’re here, we always enjoy a lap swim in our Florentine community pool, followed by a luxurious hot tub soak. Today, that hot tub will be doubly appreciated.

Postcard: Hugging the Coast

August 3, 2009

We would be a couple of days early for our rally in Port Townsend, so Tom made us pre-rally reservations at nearby Fort Flagler. This fort, along with Forts Worden and Casey, were constructed in the late 1890s to protect the northwest coast from foreign attack. The forts were never used for this purpose, but have become wonderful places to camp. Each has sites right on the sound, with water & electric hookups. Each has miles of beach to explore. And at each fort, you can wander through the old gun emplacements, and tour the old barracks -- irresistible for children and adults alike.

Tom had booked our site online, and as viewed on the computer, it looked quite short and very near its neighbors. When we arrived, we were delighted to see that we had plenty of space. It was a low tide, great clamming morning, and we watched as entire families attacked the beach with shovels, rakes and buckets.

The first annual Alpine “Fred Sez” rally was held at the Port Townsend fairgrounds. Fred Royce had “sez” it would be great and it was. The fairgrounds’ 4H building became our clubhouse. There was a full kitchen and plenty of room for all activities, including Saturday night dancing to the Dukes of Dabob (named after nearby Dabob Bay). The band was so popular that we attracted dancers from another fairgrounds party!

Food often takes center stage at rallies, and this one was no exception. One evening, we feasted on Washington seafood, and piles of clam and mussel shells, next to the remains of baked salmon, attested to our eating abilities. The next night barbequed tri-tip took center stage. Lunch at the “Valley Cafe” in nearby Port Hadlock, a mainstay of the town for over 30 years, was a buffet of fish & chips. After lunch we played “bacon bingo”. 5 across in any direction won you a pound of bacon!

Fred said we shouldn’t miss the “My Girl Drive-in and Museum” -- 10,000 square feet of collectibles, including classic cars and an extensive collection of Elvis and rock memorabilia. He also recommended a tour the waterfront district of Victorian Port Townsend. Guides George & Joan Fowler walked us through the streets and into the history of this town. To complete the picture, George was dressed as an army captain, circa 1902, while Joan wore a long black skirt, white lace blouse and a straw hat with pink flower. Living history! Port Townsend was once the second largest seaport in the US (after New York City). During the late 1800s, many ornate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of the growth that would come when the Northern Pacific railroad connected the town with Tacoma. When this did not happen, Port Townsend shrank, and the world wide depression of the early 1890s meant the end of a dream.

Port Townsend has two distinct sections. “Uptown” is located on the bluffs overlooking the harbor, while “downtown” is defined as the commercial district lying between the waterfront and the base of those bluffs. Uptown ladies did not associate with the more rowdy, Water Street “ladies”, but at some point some woman from uptown must have come downtown. On the side of a building, she noticed a painting advertising Bull Durham tobacco. She must have been shocked to find the bull most realistically portrayed, because an artist was soon retained to carefully position a fence around the animal.

As our group walked along Water Street, we noticed several other such paintings -- advertisements for products long gone. They are slowly disappearing, as this part of Port Townsend is a U.S. National Historic district. There will be no repainting of the old advertisements.

Our tour was scheduled to last for only an hour, but when George asked us if we’d like to extend it a bit, the choice was a unanimous “yes”. We stopped at the foot of the stairs separating uptown from the Water Street district, and discussed the bawdy history of Port Townsend. Just across the street the Palace Hotel still has rooms named after its turn of the century inhabitants. Miss Pearl, Miss Alice, Miss Rose, etc. And one named, “Captain Tibbal’s”. Shades of Pendleton & Uncle Johnny!

The last stop on the tour was the Jefferson County Museum. Upstairs is the longest continuously used courtroom in the US. The judge’s bench and the railings separating the observers from the judge & jury are carved from beautifully polished wood -- the rows of computers on the desks on each side seeming quite out of place.

The old county jail occupies part of the museum basement. Three narrow cells, with neither beds nor lavatory facilities, stone walls on either side, and only a barred door to look through. It’s rumored that Jack London spent a night here, and that the only successful escape was when an inmate managed to squeeze himself through the slot meant for his meal tray.

It’s a “hippie” town, and proud of it. According to the Port Townsend City guide, “Fort Worden became a state park ideal for artistic pursuits, and a lot of our hippies opened small shops down town.” You’ll see long skirts, tie-dyed shirts, dreadlocks, and hear music on almost every street corner. Visit the farmer’s market on a Saturday morning, and buy bread or fresh produce from a smiling girl in a long flowing dress. (I can especially recommend the herb and cheese baguettes). One young girl was selling a peculiar looking cookie -- round and black with yellow flecks, topped with something orange. I asked her what it was and she recited a long list of ingredients, none of which I recognized until she added “kelp”. She assured me it was extremely nutritious and a real energy booster. I probably should have tried one.

We had originally planned to head east after the rally. Two of our kids were spending a week on the shores of Lake Chelan in eastern Washington, and we’d been invited to join them. We hadn’t been to northern Idaho or Montana for several years, and this would be a perfect time for such a trip.

Perfect, that is, if the weather had cooperated. This time, like in the old song, it was “too damn hot”. Seattle was expecting temperatures of 100 degrees and possibly more -- incredibly warm for this coastal city. If it was that hot in Seattle, what would it be like east of the Cascades? (Answer, not that hot, after all). We opted to turn west and hug the coast as we headed back to Florence.

From Port Townsend, we followed Highway 101, through Sequim to Port Angeles, and on to Forks. Forks is a small town, population just over 3,000, which used to be primarily known for the amount of rainfall it received each year. Not any longer. Now it is known as the “Twilight” town, the town where vampire Edward Cullen lived.

As we drove through Forks, I noticed one sign prominently displayed on a motel -- “Edward Cullen did NOT sleep here”. The local video stores were festooned with Twilight posters, but the rest of town seems largely unchanged.

Hoquiam is located on Gray’s Harbor, a bit inland from the actual coast, and was having a mini heat wave of its own, so we decided to take an afternoon loop trip to the beach. We’d follow highway 109 from just outside Hoquiam along the coast to Pacific Beach.

The temperatures dropped dramatically as we neared the water. At Pacific Beach, we noticed a sign for the Pacific Beach State Park, but,turning in, we found no such place. Hmm.. we tried again.

This time, we turned left at the “Wacky Warehouse” and in three blocks found a beautiful little park with water & electric hookups. The park was predictably completely full, but the beach was so large and so long it seemed almost empty. One lucky camper had snagged a spot right behind a low protective berm, and had set his umbrella and chair out to enjoy the ocean views.

It was only 60 miles back to Tokeland and the Bay Shore RV park for one last night in Washington. Tokeland prides itself on having great weather -- when it’s windy or raining in Westport, only 15 miles north, Tokeland will have sun. Unfortunately, they had so much sun this day that we had to run our generator in order to cool the coach below 94 degrees! But when you’re on the water, you can be sure the sunset will be spectacular, and even better, the temperature will drop at night.

Grayland Beach State park is located only 10 miles north of Tokeland, but is right on the ocean, instead on the more protected (and warmer) Willapa Bay. Again, in this heat wave, the park was completely full, but we’ll try it another time Widely spaced sites with water and electric, and some with your own private path to the ocean.

Back to Oregon, planning one last overnight at Fort Stevens. Similar to the forts further north, Fort Stevens, located at the mouth of the Columbia River, was constructed for military defense. However, this fort was actually used for this purpose, and did not close until the end of WWII. It’s now a huge park with 174 full hookup sites, 302 electric sites, yurts and a hiker/biker area. Its 3,700 acres include a large swimming lake and two smaller ones, 9 miles of bike trails and 6 miles of hiking trails. We were a bit concerned about finding room here, especially after reading the sign at the park entrance, “campground full”.

But we tried anyway. Maybe that sign had been for the evening before, and there would be campers leaving this morning. And we were right. After waiting in line for about 30 minutes, we secured a site. The weather has begun to cool, and this evening was the first in many that we enjoyed an evening fire.

Tomorrow, we’re off again to Florence. It’s difficult to imagine we’ve been gone over two weeks. Time to see what’s happened since we left. Our neighbors report sighting a bear with three cubs roaming around -- perhaps we’ll glimpse her. We’ve some undone projects waiting for us in here and in Bend, but soon, I’m sure wanderlust will set in again. Who knows where we’ll go next?

Postcard: The Terning Point

July 21, 2009

We’re looking forward to the July NoWaca (Northwestern Alpine Coach Association) rally in Port Townsend, Washington. San Juan Island friends from years past live nearby, and we’re planning a get together. We’ll be able to depend on summer weather, northwest coast style. We’ll leave the triple digit heat for those areas east of the Cascades, and enjoy sunny days with highs in the 70s and nights just right for sleeping.

I won’t mind taking a temporary leave from the labors of the last two months. We’ve been homebodies, dividing our time between landscaping the back garden in Florence, and planning a deck “redo” in Bend. In Florence, I’ve been fighting a losing battle with encroaching Salal, and the Bend deck work isn’t due to start for a couple of weeks. All work and no play make grumpy RVers. Time to hit the road. Besides, we were due at our granddaughter’s 10th birthday party at Maryhill State Park on the Columbia River. Not many 10 year old girls would opt for an overnight camping trip to celebrate her birthday; Calleigh must take after her grandparents!

First stop on the trip north -- Albany and the Blue Ox RV park. Blue Ox is a great stopover park. Full hookups, sites long enough for any rig, exceptionally clean restrooms, an indoor pool and spa, a separate clubhouse with kitchen facilities; it’s an easy choice for an overnight. The park is located next door to the Linn County fairgrounds, where mega-rallies (like FMCA’s) have been held. This week, the Linn County fair is gearing up -- we’ll miss it by only one day.

We’d planned on one night at Blue Ox and another at The Bridge RV park in White Salmon, WA, but had to review those plans when Bridge’s voice mail said, “Sorry, tent space only for the next two days”. This park is very popular with Columbia River fishermen, and this is high season for steelhead.

So, we turned to Plan B, and extended our stay at Blue Ox another night. We spent the afternoon wandering the Cascade foothills east of Albany. We stopped to check in on another of our favorite RV resorts, and also found a new campground, one which will definitely be on our future list of places to stay.

Mallard Creek RV Resort was built for those avid golfers who also happen to be avid RVers. (Or do I have this backwards?) It’s a beautiful park under towering trees, with only a short walk to the golf course. If it has a drawback, it’s the location -- Lebanon, Oregon isn’t exactly on the beaten path to anywhere. On the other hand, location is also one of its main attractions. No freeway noise to distract you, a beautiful clubhouse, and golfing buddies by the RV load.

Lebanon may be a small town, but it’s large enough to have a "sort of" suburb! Waterloo, Oregon is just a couple of miles east. Here we found a new -- to us -- campground, one to which we’re already planning our return, Waterloo County Park. Large back-in spaces set well apart from each other overlooking the south fork of the Santiam River. This park is geared to family outings, with a large children’s playground, and a leash-free doggy run. Barney loved it. The park takes reservations and on summer weekends is usually full, but come fall...

Our route to Port Townsend now took us eastward to Maryhill. We exited onto Interstate 84, and with a slight breeze behind us, made good time as we traveled upriver. (When you drive this route, note that the wind will be at your back heading east, but when you go west, the chances are good that you will encounter a very strong and often erratic headwind). As we drove along, we watched for the windsurfers and kite boarders which make the Columbia Gorge world famous. Except this day was lacking the usual gusty wind. Not a kite nor a board to be seen anywhere, just kids splashing in the shallows of the River and a few fishermen floating in the river current. And yes, it was hot. At one point, the jeep’s thermometer registered 102. Perhaps not too warm for southwestern desert rats, but way too hot for us coastal types.

About 5 miles from Maryhill, and still on the Oregon side of the River, we noticed a small sign, ”Deschutes River State Park”. These signs usually tell you what to expect at the park; you’ll see pictures of a tent, a fish or perhaps a picnic table. This sign added a picture of an RV. Hmm... maybe we should explore this little park. Maryhill is so popular with windsurfers that it is often full. The Maryhill Winery’s tasting rooms also attract campers, and this year they are also hosting concerts. Summer reservations at the campground now are virtually a must. Perhaps this park would be a good place to stay when Maryhill was full.

Once we were settled at our Maryhill site, we headed back across the River. We drove into Biggs (a town which consists of several gas stations, a couple of fast food restaurants and two motels), turned right at McDonalds, and followed the frontage road west for four plus miles.

Deschutes River is a beautiful little park. The description in TrailerLife doesn’t do it justice. The hookup sites sit under towering cottonwoods; the dry camping areas are scattered on a grassy field. According to the information from the park ranger at Maryhill, there is a 30’ size limit. However, many of the hookup sites seemed easily long enough for coaches larger than ours, and the camp host told us she didn’t know why that limit was mentioned. And she bragged, “ If you can dry camp, we can take any size rig. We had a 45 foot Prevost in here last week. And they had a trailer, as well!”

But the Gorge was beginning to heat up. The warm Maryhill weather was enough to send us scurrying for the coast the following morning -- to the relatively unknown village of Tokeland and the Bayshore RV park. We hadn’t been here for a couple of years, and in the interim, the park had been sold. However, the original owners, Fred & Susan Merk are now back, and the park is being spruced up. It was just like it coming home again. We pulled up our chairs on the low berm separating the park from Willapa Bay, and enjoyed our evening fire . The historic Tokeland hotel is just across the street, with delicious meals and a resident ghost. (Every self respecting historic hotel should have a resident ghost!)

We settled in and watched the gulls and terns wheeling in the sky. As the tide came in, the birds settled on a pointed strip of sand protruding into the Bay. “Do you know what that is?” Tom asked. Being the curious sort, I said no -- but in so doing set up the surprise punch line: “That's a terning point!", he smiled...

And now we'll arrive at our own turning point -- as tomorrow we head north to Port Townsend and the Alpine Coach Rally.

Postcard: 32 Steps to Heaven

May 18, 2009

I wish we’d learn -- March is too early to expect anything like Spring in Oregon. Day after day dawned wet and cool with temperatures a good 10 degrees below normal. Shortly after we opened the Bend townhome, we experienced what weather forecasters called a “late, unseasonable snowstorm”. We used the Wrangler for our jaunts between Bend and Florence, and several times we were glad to have 4 WD as we crossed Santiam Pass.

Our rig was scheduled into Carrier and Son’s in Eugene to get a pesky steering problem fixed. We’d also decided to change the floor of the coach, as the original tiles had developed several cracks, and the living area carpet was in serious need of replacement. We decided to change to a new hardwood floor for the whole coach except the bedroom area. March became April and April turned to May before we were ready to become RVers again. Our coach was now safer, and with its attractive new flooring, certainly more beautiful. We were off to the NoWACA, (Northwest Alpine Coach Association) rally in Pendleton, Oregon.

We’d be staying at the Wildhorse RV resort and casino, an enterprise owned and run by the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla Indian tribes. The RV park has 100 level asphalt and gravel sites. It’s fringed on three sides by waving fields of green spring wheat, due to turn gold come fall. On the 4th side is an 18 hole golf course. It’s only a short walk to the hotel and casino, or you can wait for one of the frequent shuttles. Just down the road about a half mile is the Tamastsklit Cultural Institute, with artifacts and photo exhibits. Only 6 miles west is the town of Pendleton.

I enjoyed the story of the founding of Pendleton. In the early 1860’s a man named Moses Goodwin purchased land along the Umatilla River, cleared the cottonwood trees which grew there, and built a bridge across the river. With easy access across the wide river, pioneers lined up to use his bridge -- which they could, for a price. It didn’t take long until the enterprising Moses Goodwin had totally recouped his purchase monies.

Early day Pendleton epitomized the “wild west” with 32 saloons, 18 bordellos, and a reputation as the entertainment capital of the region. Today, with fewer saloons and no bordellos, it still retains much of its old time western flavor. Historic buildings line the streets, and stores specialize in western garb and gear. Each fall, the 4 day Pendleton round-up attracts not only cowboys from all over the US, Canada and Europe, but also tourists by the thousands.

Several local businesses offer tours. Our rally goers spent the better part of one afternoon at the Haus Barhyte specialty store. I’d seen this label in many grocery stores, but didn’t realize just how large an enterprise this is. Haus Barhyte carries all sorts of condiments, but specializes in mustards. They set up a tasting bar with at least a dozen different types of mustard, and several of the rally-goers left with specialized selections. We were also able to view the mustard making facility itself, and I loved seeing hundreds of little bottles coming down the assembly line, being filled with mustard, capped and sealed. The whole scene just begged for Lucy and Ethel’s helpful hands.

Another evening, we toured the shop of Hamley & Co., saddle makers. Not being in the market for a saddle, I wondered about this choice. But Hamley’s is much more than just a saddle shop. Saddles are only a small part of one of the most complete western stores I’ve ever seen. Their art collection alone is well worth the visit. But wait, there’s even more. Based on the barbeque dinner we were served, Hamley & Co. is also a fabulous steakhouse. The barbeque was prepared just as I like it, neither too spicy nor too bland, with no residual thirst the next day. I'd look forward to trying other items from Hamley’s extensive menu.

Hamley was established in 1905, and completely refurbished in 1952. During remodeling, antiques from other western areas were imported to Hamleys. The enormous bar in the main dining room, hammered metal ceilings and Tiffany lights throughout add to its the “old time” ambiance.

When we checked into the rally, one of the items we found in our registration packet was a charm bracelet with two charms attached. It was up to us to collect others. We’d be following the “charm trail”.

Pendleton has a marketing strategy that other cities would do well to emulate. As you walk through town, you’ll notice small signs posted in many store windows -- “Charm trail” followed by a number. First, stop at the Chamber of Commerce, conveniently located right downtown. There you can pick up the basic charm bracelet. Then locate those participating stores and for $1 per charm, add to your collection.

You’ll find the charms at many diverse businesses around town, not just t-shirt shops. Visit the Rainbow Cafe for a bucking bronco or the East Oregonian Newspaper office for a saddle. Stop by the lumber supply store and choose a boot, log cabin, or both. The charms range from buffalo to broncos, from saddles to soccer balls, and a full collection will number well over 50. Our granddaughter would have loved walking this trail. (I enjoyed it, too).

The piece de resistance for the rally was the living history tour of the red light district of Pendleton. Tours of the underground are given throughout the year, but only on this one day will you experience living history. Volunteers dress in period clothes and make this town’s colorful history come to life. But this tour is quite different from the living history demonstrations I’ve seen other places. These are not just people dressed in pioneer garb, demonstrating how to make butter with a churn or operate a lumber mill. This time you walk into the real history of a rough & tumble town, one where “working girls” were a fact of life. It is a very tasteful and amusing presentation, and this one is intended for adults.

It begins with a short film on the history of Pendleton, from its earliest beginnings, through prohibition and into the 1960’s when the last bordello was closed. Then we were ushered down a short flight of fairly steep stairs, through an iron door, where a sign warned us to leave our guns behind, and into a barroom scene straight out of an old western movie.

But none of the players was moving. They were all frozen in time; men playing cards, gaudily dressed women watching the game, a barkeep behind the bar with drinks ready to be poured. Nick, our tour leader, went behind the bar and explained how this kind of scene would have changed when gold was discovered. At the word “gold”, chaos broke out. Cards scattered as men leaped to their feet, whirling girls around the floor, yelling, “gold, gold”. A few of the girls even grabbed members of our group and took them out on the dance floor. Pandemonium -- until a shotgun blast quieted everyone. Someone had broken the rules and brought a gun into the bar. Time for us to go.

As we walked from vignette to vignette we passed through some of the underground tunnels that honeycomb the red light district of Pendleton. These tunnels were created by Chinese workers who had come to the US to work on the railroads. Rampant anti-Chinese discrimination forced these workers to live in the underground tunnels. To be caught above ground after sundown could result in getting shot on sight.

Years seemed to melt together as we visited an ice cream parlor, Chinese laundry and the Empire Meat market, one of the first to use refrigeration. One skit portrayed a scene from Prohibition. Three card players were anticipating the arrival of their liquor distributor -- Moonshine Annie. She burst on the scene pushing a baby buggy. ‘Here’s little Al Cohol, and his twin brothers”, she boasted, and pulled some blanket wrapped jars out of the carriage.

Hardly had she passed out the moonshine when the police were pounding on the door. Annie hurried to a closet and shut herself in, and the card payers frantically hid their wares. The cop wasn’t content with just questioning them, however. One by one, he questioned us! When he got to me, he pulled open a door behind me which I hadn’t even noticed. Inside was a bottle of wine. Oh, oh. But although he asked me some fairly accusatory questions, he eventually seemed to believe I’d never seen it before. (Afterward, I wished I’d made myself more a part of the play, and not proclaimed my innocence so strongly. What he would have done if I’d acted guilty?)

The last half of our trip took us out of the underground and up the steps called the “32 Steps to Heaven”, into the bordello of Stella Darby and her working girls. We were greeted by Stella herself, a brassy lady with a colorful history. She explained she had tried other ways to make her way in the world, but was a failure at being either a cook or a waitress. At 19, she started the bordello, and found something at which she excelled -- business. The brothel district was officially closed in 1953, after a Presbyterian minister threatened to read the names of brothel patrons in church. However, Stella continued to operate her establishment until she retired in 1965.

One of the rooms in the brothel served as a chapel. Early on, Stella’s “working girls” were most unpopular with the distaff side of Pendleton’s population, and were not allowed to attend the town’s church. Beyond the chapel were the “cozy rooms”, furnished with overstuffed armchairs and sofas. Here the clients came to meet with the girls, and to pass muster with Stella before taking off to separate rooms.

We filed into Stella’s personal boudoir, and she began to tell us about her experiences. Suddenly, there were the now familiar knocks on the door, and a voice called out, “Stella, open up! It’s the police! I know you’re in there”.

“Quick, get into the closet”. All 18 of us squeezed into what looked like a closet -- but it was a pass through into Uncle Johnny’s room. Uncle Johnny, a lecherous handyman who claimed all the girls were his "nieces" obviously enjoyed his living accommodations.

Uncle Johnny took us down the hall to Klondike Kate’s room. She was a bit busy at the moment, but managed a short description of her Alaska experiences before having to return to her room. Down the hall, we met Becky, a prostitute who had escaped from brothel life when she married a lawyer! He abandoned her and she had to return to her old life. You can imagine the amount of ribbing, Tom, the only lawyer in our group, took when her story was told.

This was a special experience, one I’m glad we did not miss. The rest of the year, the underground is open for regular tours at specified times. These last 90 minutes and the only restrictions are that you must be 6 or older. The underground tour is a non profit activity, and all the money earned on this, their annual spring fund-raiser, goes to a local charity.

Tonight, we’re camping at Maryhill state park on the Washington side of the Columbia River. Our cool, windy weather is behind us, and the promised heat has come. Tomorrow, we head back toward Florence. We have no specific plans for more travel at the moment, but our next rally is 2 months away, and other adventures will surely be inspired. The rig is ready to go, and so are we.

Postcard: A Day in Paradise

March 1, 2009

We’d wanted to explore more of New Mexico Highway 9, that road which parallels the Interstate across New Mexico. We’d taken our jeep along the eastern portion of it a few weeks earlier. First, we’d become lost in El Paso. When we did find the right road, we followed rolling hills along the Mexican border. After lunch at the Pink Store in Palomas, Mexico, and a visit with some RVing friends, we’d returned to Las Cruces. Now we’d do the rest of the trip. This time, of course, we were taking the Alpine.

West from Las Cruces to exit 49, and then we turned south on highway 146. That road was fairly narrow, and lacked shoulders in a few spots, but we only met two other vehicles as we drove south. Of course, one was a pilot car for a wide load which nearly took up both lanes, but by slowing and pulling over, (and because I held my breath!), we squeezed by.

Hachita, the town at the junction of 146 and highway 9, is one of those frontier towns whose livelihood once depended on the railroad. Hachita got its start as a mining town, and had over 300 residents in the early 1880s. It’s heyday was short lived however. Within 10 years, the railroad moved east. While Hachita briefly flourished as a troop staging area during the hunt for Pancho Villa, as a town it was finished. Today an historical marker is virtually all that’s left. Hachita is now considered a “semi-ghost” town, with a population of about 50.

Animas, a bit further west, is larger, with an elementary school (the Animas Pintos), and small grocery store. Other than these two little towns, there’s nothing here except huge expanses of rolling, grass covered hills. And scenery. Vistas that stretch to the horizon. The mountains on the western horizon are home to the Chiricahua National Monument.

The Chiricahua Mountains cover 11,985 acres along the Arizona/New Mexico border. One description of these mountains calls them “sky islands”, since they appear to rise straight out of the surrounding grassland “sea”. They are heavily wooded with pinyon pine and scrub oak, and are the northern home to several species of Mexican birds, including the Mexican jay and Mexican chickadee (neither as yet on my bird list).

If you enter the Monument from the west, you exit Interstate 10 at Willcox, and drive about 18 miles southeast. From here, you can scramble through the rocks in Cochise Stronghold, where the Apache chief kept his enemies at bay for several years. A small RV park in the stronghold, Bonita Canyon, has 22 spaces for non-slide RVs under 25 feet. At nearby Fort Bowie, you can explore the area where Geronimo surrendered and where Cochise later fought the California Volunteers.

The eastern side of the Chiricahuas is definitely less traveled. The two very small Forest Service campgrounds here are recommended only for tents and the smallest RVs. But there’s one exceptionally nice RV park very close by, Rusty’s RV Ranch. We were here several years ago, when the ranch was called Caballos de las Estrellas. Caballos because the Ranch has a large horse boarding facility and arena; and Estrellas because of the night sky.

This is reportedly one of 6 places in the U.S. where the night skies are completely dark and clear, with no nearby cities, and no artificial light. I thought I’d seen the stars on clear nights in other places, on other trips. I was in for a completely new experience. I concluded that there simply are more stars here, each competing for space, crowding its neighbors. The sky is velvet black, the stars are everywhere.

Not surprisingly, this area is a haven for amateur astronomers. There’s even one nearby development, called “Arizona Sky Village” which is selling 4 acre lots -- but only to those who will build a telescope/obervatory in addition to their homes.

Rusty has kept the RV ranch much as it was under the prior owners. Trailer Life’s description of the park includes the phrase “mostly side by side hookups”, but this is misleading. When your site is 200 feet long, and nearly 100 feet wide, you can easily fit two rigs into it and have no part of one encroach on the space of the other. And each has a full 1/4 acre on the passenger side for privacy.

The Ranch attracts all sorts of horsemen -- Tom talked to one owner who is methodically exploring all the canyons in the Chiricahuas. A task which could take years! If you want to make the exploratory task a bit shorter, this is also great country for an ATV.

If you have neither, the road into the mountains is fairly easily accessed by most passenger cars. The road is mostly gravel, narrow, and a bit rough in spots, but you’ll find few other travelers clogging your way. The scenery is fabulous -- we decided it was as spectacular as Yosemite, without the crowds. Pinnacles of rock rise out of the surrounding wooded areas, some with intriguing looking caves.

From the east, the way into the Monument takes you to the tiny town of Portal. It’s obvious how this town got its name; just look southwest down valley through a gap. You’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of the mountains.

We’re suckers for a loop trip, and couldn’t resist the trip to Paradise. Armed with a “Birder’s Map of Portal”, we drove about 4 miles south on Highway 80 and turned right. ( On this trip, we didn’t rely on Ms Garmin. We’ve tried using her in remote areas before and found the more remote the area, the greater chance she’ll make a mistake. Having found ourselves on multiple dead end dirt roads, we no longer trust her “off-road” abilities.)

At Portal (a Post Office, Ranger station and half dozen homes), we turned right toward Paradise. The narrow gravel road wound upward for about 4 miles, where we paused at the Paradise pioneer graveyard. I find it interesting to walk through old graveyards. This one has several family plots dating from the 1890s, and half a dozen simply marked “Mexican man” or “Mexican child”.

When you get here, look at the sign at the entrance gate. You know you’re in a remote area when you see a sign that reads, “Prior permission required for burials”!

According to our map, Paradise is officially a ghost town (which may come as a surprise to the couple out working in their garden this morning). Only a few homes line its single street, and except for these folk, we saw no one.

Rejoining the “main” road, we turned west, climbing up to Onion Saddle, the top of the Chiricahuas. At an elevation of 7,600 feet, patches of snow still lingered in shaded spots. From here, the road descends steeply to rejoin highway 181 and back to Willcox and “civilization”.

Now it’s time for us to turn for home. We’ll spend a day or so in Tucson, and then retrace our steps -- back to California and north to Oregon. Once again, we’ll realize we’re getting back far too early, and the rain in Florence and lingering snow in Bend will bring regrets for having so soon left the sunny desert climes. What we’ll have conveniently forgotten is that it’s now getting quite hot here. And Spring, northwestern Spring, is just around the corner.

Postcard: Red Pepper Earrings and Green Tabasco Sauce

February 22, 2009

Off to Louisiana. We left the rig stored at the Lost Alaskan and the dog in jail at a carefully selected nearby vet, and caught the 2:20 p.m. Sunset Limited to New Orleans. From past experiences, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find the 2:20 arriving at 4 p.m., 5 p.m. or even later. Today, however, the 2:20 arrived at 2:20.

The new found punctuality of Amtrak is due in part to the slowing economy -- there are fewer freight trains clogging the tracks these days. However, it’s also due to the fact that, in 2007, Amtrak sued the Union Pacific (which owns the tracks), and UP agreed to limit the number of speed restrictions placed on the trains. In past years, in addition to having to wait for all the freight trains, Amtrak had to work around something called “slow orders”. These orders, usually put in effect because of track repair, caused a great deal of delay. This time, we heard the conductor brag about the new “on time” look of the trains. And, going east, he was correct. We pulled into the New Orleans station exactly on time.

Amtrak’s punctuality delighted us even more as we approached our hotel. The traffic was horrendous. Police were out, setting up barricades, and forcing traffic into single lane, carefully monitored routes. “You’re lucky you’re this early”, our cabbie told us. “In a half hour, this street will be closed, and you’d have to walk to your hotel. The first Mardi Gras parades start tonight.”

While we’ve spent several Mardi Gras seasons in rural Louisiana, this was our first taste of the New Orleans version. As we had passed through Lake Charles earlier that day, our train had been boarded by the Border Patrol. One of the officers asked where we were going. “It’s Mardi Gras”, he said. “Be careful of pickpockets.” With that warning in mind, I opted to leave my purse in the room, and attached my camera to my belt -- under a bulky sweatshirt. I was ready for glamorous floats, gaily dressed revelers, and beads!

It’s amazing what a Mardi Gras parade can do to sophisticated “grown-ups”. Even those who are merely watching get into the spirit of things. Not just the kids, either. I stood next to an elderly couple who jumped up and down, waving their arms and yelling, “Throw me something, Mister!” A middle aged man grabbed an especially choice set of beads right out of the air (and out the the hands of his neighbor). Then he pumped his fist, “Yessss... thank you (that last to the float)”.

The weather was not cooperative this evening. There were two parades, one right after the other, and by the time the last few floats came by, it was raining hard. Tom & I retreated to our room and got ready for our next adventure -- we were going to Betty’s.

Betty Bernard is the owner and spirit of Betty’s RV park, a small park in Abbeville, southwestern Louisiana. Whether you are a first time visitor, or return every year, you’ll be welcomed with open arms and a hug, Betty always has some new and innovative ideas about what to do in her corner of the world. She knows the best places to eat and what to order when you get there. She knows where the fanciest parades will be held, and their schedules are posted in her rec room. This year, she is taking a group to the “Courir (run)”.

While Tom & I have seen the parades in some of the small Cajun towns, Betty’s crowd will get to view parts that ordinary parade watchers miss. Following centuries’ old traditions, the Courir takes place at individual homes and farms. The costumed runners (often on horseback), go from farm to farm singing, dancing and begging for ingredients for a gumbo. Often, the owner will toss a live chicken into the air, and the Courir runners chase it to add to the communal feast in town.

The folks from the RV park have been invited to a farm to see the inner workings of this countryside Mardi Gras. Our schedule was such that we couldn’t join them this time, but we’ll surely try not to miss again.

We pulled up at Betty’s just in time for Jambalaya with the Touchets. (My school book French is worthless when it comes to Cajun French, Touchet is pronounced Two- Chets. Today they were wearing t-shirts showing their logo, a 2, a check mark and an S, to help you pronounce the name).

The Touchets had a towable outdoor kitchen set up in Betty’s driveway. Two huge pots, (small missionary size) were emitting wonderful odors. One held chunks of pork simmering in a rich brown sauce. This pot was so big that an ordinary spoon would have been far too small to stirring the meat. Calvin Touchet used a full sized oar. The other pot was for the beans, which would later be cooked from scratch. A plate of smoked sausage had been set out for for sampling.

Everyone agreed that the jambalaya was delicious, the best ever. Even the one man who had grown up in this area pronounced it excellent. “But”, he said, “no jambalaya tastes quite like the one my mother used to make.”

The RVers at Betty’s had provided desserts, and Betty had made her famous bread pudding with rum sauce. The traditional King cake held a place of honor, but was challenged by various cheesecakes, cookies and, of course, that delicious pudding. We took a couple of pieces for “later”, and in about 4 hours, it was gone.

We spent a couple of nights in Lafayette (pronounced laugh-ee-ette), and went to the Rio parade. Betty had promised that this parade would throw enough beads to satisfy the most ardent collector, and she was certainly correct. The 20 floats had so many beads that often the folks on the floats didn’t bother to throw them one by one. Beads come in large bags, and are supposed to be removed, sorted and thrown, singly. Not this time, This Krewe (the club sponsoring the parade), frequently just threw the whole bag. I put our entire collection of beads around my neck, and collected a couple of red “Krewe of Rio” cups. My hands were full and I started dodging beads instead of trying to catch them. Did you know it hurts to be hit by flying beads?

We’d watched half the floats pass by, and I’d already collected so many beads I could barely move my neck, so we slowly started back to the car. As it was almost 10 p.m., dinner sounded like a good idea. But the combination of a Mardi Gras parade, Valentine’s Day, and President's Day weekend meant the festivities for a good portion of Lafayette were far from over. Even at 10:30 that evening, there was a half hour wait for a table at a nearby restaurant.

Our last stop before returning west would be in Houma. We drove slowly south, detouring into the countryside around Lafayette. East of town, we came through the small towns of Breaux Bridge and St. Martinville, and stopped at nearby Martin Lake for a geocache.

This small lake is very popular with fishermen and birdwatchers. Like many lakes in this area, cypress trees sprout from its waters -- even out in the middle. Egrets and herons are everywhere -- there’s a large rookery at one end of the lake. In summer, it would be unusual NOT to see an alligator out sunning himself, so the warning sign, “don’t swim” seems a bit unnecessary. A public hiking trail encircles the lake, but much of the land behind it is privately owned. Several homes were hidden behind “no trespassing” signs. Of the several we spotted, my favorite was a tower. It looked like the perfect inspiration for the Brothers Grimm’s tale of Rapunzel. And the surrounding vine covered forest was the perfect place for the witch to spend her days.

From Martin Lake, we followed the Bayou Teche toward Avery Island, home of alligators, egrets and Tabasco sauce.

It isn’t easy to find Avery Island, in fact this is one of the many Louisiana spots where we’ve become lost. You have to wind a bit through New Iberia and find La 329. Then it’s about 5 miles out through the salt marshes to Avery Island. As we drove along, I thought I caught a glimpse of an alligator, although we’ve been told it’s cold enough in February that most are hibernating. When we stopped to pay our $1 toll at the Island entrance, I asked if what I’d seen could have been a ‘gator. “It’s possible,” the toll taker said, “4,000 of them were released here last summer”. No matter the month, this is a good place to watch where you walk.

On previous trips, we’ve toured the Tabasco factory, and explored the Jungle gardens. But no matter where else you go on Avery Island, don’t miss the general store. Here you can get everything Tabasco, from bottles of Tabasco sauce in every imaginable size, to t-shirts and hats with tabasco logos. There’s a sampling bar, where you can dip a pretzel or chip into sauces so hot they burn your tongue. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a sample of their jalapeno ice cream. Our rig’s supply of green tabasco sauce was low, so I got some for Tom. He got me a pair of chili pepper earrings. They fit well with Mardi Gras beads, and will also be fun to wear when we get home.

We spent a day exploring the area south of Houma, (“home-a”), a bayou riddled marshy area known as the Atchafalaya Delta. ( A helpful gal at the Visitor Center in Houma told us to emphasize the “tcha” part of this word like a sneeze). You have your choice of routes south, LA 55, 56 or 57. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose, they are all interconnected.

This part of Louisiana is no stranger to hurricanes, most recently Hurricane Gustav. You see rubble everywhere. Even where houses have been rebuilt, the remnants of the earlier homes have been piled in heaps at the sides of the roads, waiting for pickup at some uncertain later date.

We chose LA 56, which we followed to the town of Chauvin. In town, we crossed the bayou on a small bridge to visit the sculpture gardens of Kenny Hill. Kenny Hill was a reclusive artist who spent over 10 years sculpting incredible, almost grotesque statues with distinctly religious overtones. In one area of the garden, two angels are forbidding entrance; in another, they welcome you. A series of black painted, naked figures tearing at their hair, weeping and crawling seem destined for hell, until you get to the last figure, upright and clothed. The garden is dominated by a 45 foot tall tower with figures climbing up it. I saw soldiers, cowboys and more angels, and later read that Hill sculpted God and himself on the tower as well. I could spend hours looking at these figures, and walking the paths through the gardens, and I would still not be sure just what Hill was trying to say.

How did we know the sculpture garden was there? There’s a geocache here as well. This is a prime example of how this game has lead us places we’d have never found for ourselves.

At the end of LA 56 is the town of Cocodrie, (Cajun for “crocodile). This is a popular fishing area, as evidenced by one sign which read, “paw’s fishing camp”. Most of the homes here have fishing boats, either pulled up under the houses or tied to docks along the waterways. As protection against the flood waters which accompany hurricanes, the houses are built on stilts, well above the ground.

We were so close to the end of the road we determined to drive to the end. But before we got there, we passed a large building which resembled an airport terminal. Since this seemed an unlikely place for an airport, we went in to check it out and found ourselves at LUMCON.

Lumcon, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, is a combination marine education and research facility. It offers classes and field trips for students and gives visiting scientists a chance to interact with the global scientific community. Lumcon scientists focus their research on projects of relevance to Louisiana, such as the processes of coastal change. Along its coast, Louisiana loses land to erosion every day. A chart showed where the coastline was as little as 50 years ago, and it bears little resemblance to the today’s coastline. And as the coast creeks backward, the "natural" protection from hurricanes erodes as well.

Walking up to the observation tower to look out over this flat, marshy land, we could see clear to the horizon in every direction. All that is here is miles of grassland interspersed by waterways. To the west, we could see the Intracoastal Waterway, loaded down with large freighters.

At the end of LA56 is Boudreaux’ Marina, “Where the road ends and the catching begins”. It truly feels like the end. There are no roads leading anywhere from here. But it was time to return to Houma. About 4 miles back up the road, we found LA 57, the cut-across road to the tiny town of Dulac, and then we followed the Falgout Canal Road west toward Houma. We passed a man taking a picture of something in the marsh grass -- perhaps an alligator? Further along a couple of fishermen had wandered out in the swamp to test their fishing skills. They must have missed the camera toting tourist or they might not have gone hiking in the tall grasses.

Next day late morning reservations on Amtrak meant leaving the rest of our exploring for a future trip. I look forward to visiting nearby Grand Isle State park. The Internet tells me that it has great swimming, fishing and birding. Perhaps next year.

Amtrak wasn’t quite as punctual on our return trip. We left on time, but extensive track repairs all along the route delayed us an extra 4 hours in San Antonio, and another 2 along the way. Good for sleeping, but bad for rescuing Barney on time. However, these repairs should be finished by early March, and the optimism of the train employees is contagious. I continue to believe that train travel is an excellent way to see this country.

Tonight we are back at the Hacienda RV Resort in Las Cruces, NM. We’ll spend a day re-outfitting the rig, and then wander slowly west. City of Rocks state park near Deming sounds intriguing, or perhaps we’ll find ourselves in Arizona sooner than anticipated. We’ll see. That’s one of the great joys of RVing; you can go where you want when you want. Eventually, we’ll get back to Oregon, but not quite yet. [See Pictures for this Postcard]

Postcard: Playing in Texas

February 8, 2009

This morning I was surprised to learn we’ve already spent more than a week in Texas. From Alpine to Big Bend, from Crystal City to the Gulf Coast, we’ve sampled a few of the attractions of this enormous state. We’ve watched whitetail deer as they congregate at a deer feeder (a contraption that dispenses “deer corn”), and multitudes of cardinals flashing red as they jostle for position at their feeders. We’ve seen javelina, wild turkeys, and ducks of all descriptions. And Barney has been introduced to the delights of armadillo pointing.

We left Las Cruces thoroughly prepared for the hassle of El Paso traffic -- and found very little. Also, the Texas DOT has finally finished the road repairs east of the city. On previous trips, Tom would drive the city part of EP, and we’d change drivers at the first available rest stop. Within a couple of miles, I’d hit what seemed like endless miles of one lane traffic, with those hateful concrete blocks narrowing an already narrow road. Now it’s a delight to drive this part of the Interstate, with its new wide shoulders and large grassy median separating the east bound traffic from that going west.

We turned south at Van Horn and followed highway 90 toward Alpine and the Lost Alaskan RV park. This route took us through Valentine, a town comprised mainly of a post office surrounded by a few small houses. Just before Valentines Day it’s a great place to mail your cards, as the post office always uses a very fancy heart encrusted stamp. And remember, it’s fun to get a valentine from Valentine.

On through Marfa, home of the “Marfa Lights”. These mysterious lights appear over the desert close to sundown, and, according to one resident, “bounce all around”. These lights have generated enough interest that the town has constructed a special viewing area, with kiosks that explain the phenomenon.

Lost Alaskan is so named, (the owners say), because they originally came from Alaska. On one trip, they found themselves in Alpine, declared themselves “lost”, and decided to stay. They chose a beautiful part of Texas, with low wooded mountains and a temperate climate. Wild life abounds. On a morning’s trip to Fort Davis, 25 miles north, we saw elk, wild turkeys and bighorn sheep.

Alpine is beautifully located for exploring. Browse the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University. In Fort Davis, visit the nearby observatory or walk the well preserved grounds of the old US cavalry fort. From Alpine it’s only 100 miles south to the Big Bend country.

And now, we can add something new to Alpine's offerings -- barbeque! In a small building just across the railroad tracks in downtown Alpine, the Texas Fusion cafe offers take out barbeque. The Lost Alaskan folks suggested it, and they were right. It was delicious.

It’s been several years since we stayed in the Big Bend National Park. There are three developed campgrounds within the park, but two, Santa Elena Canyon campground and Chisos are really too small for our rig. That leaves Rio Grande Village, a lovely spot right on the banks of the river. The sites are widely separated, and under towering cottonwood trees. You’ll see javelina, coyotes and deer wandering through the campground. The riverside birding is terrific. There are no hookups, but generators are permitted during specific hours.

Another option is just west of the park, in Lajitas. You’re actually outside the national park here, but adjacent to Big Bend State park. And the nearby Big Bend ranch offers back country tours and Rio Grande float trips. Lajitas is a resort area, with a hotel, restaurant and golf course. The first few years we came through the area, there was a small RV park right next to the course. At that time, the park had a coterie of regulars, folks who returned every year. Then, the resort was sold, and the new owners raised the rents at the RV park. The RVers left en masse, “voting with their wheels”, and can now be found at a campground in Presidio, about 50 miles further west.

Lajitas fell on hard times and closed. Now it has new owners who are trying to re-establish the resort. They’ve added 9 holes to the golf course and created a new RV park. We decided to drive down to see how the park and Lajitas were doing.

It’s a struggle. Mother Nature dealt the area a blow about the same time that Hurricane Ike was battering Galveston. The rain and winds destroyed the original 9 holes and the rest is still under construction. There is a beautiful, Western motif hotel which only lacks one thing, guests. The menu in the well appointed restaurant looked inviting, but there was only one couple having lunch.

The RV park, Maverick Ranch, was less than half full. It has a very nice club house, with a large pool and spa. Each full hook-up site is long enough for any rig, and they offer free Wi-Fi. It’s a bit far from the Park itself, but then this is Big Bend country -- everything is a long way from everything else. If we take the coach down this year, we’ll try to spend a day or so in each place.

We were a bit hesitant about calling for reservations at the Triple R ranch and RV park just outside of Crystal City. When we last visited, two years ago, the ranch was up for sale. Would it still be there? How about the zdonks (a cross between a zebra and a donkey)? And those darling baby goats?

The good news was that the ranch had indeed sold, and sold to someone who decided to keep the RV park open. The “bad” news was that the Zdonks and goats were gone. At least that was bad news to me; to the manager it was the best possible news. “Those goats were pests”, she said. “The very last things they would eat were weeds. They loved the campers’ potted plants.”

To the delight of the seasonal campers, the ranch’s new owners added a pool table, shuffleboard game, and exercise equipment to the clubhouse area. They built a deer feeding station directly across the small lake from the RV area. Each afternoon around 4:30 we heard the rattle of deer corn falling from the chute. The deer could hear it too, and we’d see at least a dozen whitetail within minutes. When the deer were finished, the quail would come running out of the brush to clean up. The old nature trail around the perimeter of the campground is still there, and on an evening walk, Barney and I came uncomfortably close to a great horned owl.

One of our “loop” trips from the ranch took us east to Choke Canyon State Park reservoir and campground. This area claims some of the best birding in Texas. Exploring it one afternoon, we had to agree. What colors! Just driving around the area, we saw Vermillion flycatchers, Green Jays, pink and white Spoonbills and the red crested grey Sandhill Cranes. Iridescent wild turkeys searched the campsites. Squadrons of white pelicans flew in formation over the lake. Each afternoon, when the sun warms the grass at the sides of the road, the silver plated armadillos come out and root around. Barney was entranced. He pointed these strange little creatures, and would have loved to play with one had we let him out of the car. We decided to spend a couple of birding days here, and tie in a trip to the Gulf Coast.

When we started this trip, I’d heard that the damage from hurricane Ike had affected the entire gulf coast, uprooting trees and decimating the bird populations. Not so, according to the locals. Galveston is still in the rebuilding process, but the rest of the coast was virtually untouched. We decided to go and see for ourselves. We’d drive south to Corpus Christi, across the Intracoastal Waterway to Mustang Island and meander north to what used to be the sleepy town of Port Aransas. The 24/7 free ferry there would put us back on the mainland for an easy return loop to Choke Canyon.

As we drove north up Mustang Island, it became obvious that the “sleepy” designation for Port Aransas, if it ever existed, is gone. Several large hotels now stand along the beachfront, hotels with names like “Mayan Princess”, “Grand Caribbean” and “Lost Colony”. Even though the current economy has halted much of the planned construction along the beach, we passed several areas with the streets already in, just waiting for future development.

While beach camping (with permit), is permitted here, if you wish to stay in a beachfront park, you have three choices. You should know that, while each park claims to be “beachfront”, none really is. All sit behind several hundred yards of beach grass covered dunes. You have to walk to the beach, but should a storm come ashore, you will be somewhat protected.

The park furthest south is Mustang Island State Park. This park is comprised of two parallel lines of sites with asphalt between them. Not fancy, but good beach access can be hard to find, and the number of fishing poles leaning up on the various rigs illustrate the allure of this park. Another sign of the popularity of surf fishing on Mustang Island are the bait signs you see everywhere. However, instead of the type of baits I’m used to, such as worms or herring, here the baits advertised are “mud minnows” and “sea lice”. Ugh!

Gulf Waters RV Resort started as a small development about 5 miles south of Port Aransas. Now it’s grown into a condo park of about 200 beautifully landscaped sites, many fronting on one of the two small man made lakes. A boardwalk leads over the dunes to the beach.

Just up the road a mile we stopped in at the Pioneer RV Resort. This park hasn’t changed a bit, and is just as popular as ever. (This night they were completely full). They too have ponds which attract Gulf Coast waterfowl, and which can create special birding opportunities. Another boardwalk here provides beach access.

On to Port Aransas. There must have been some sort of glitch in the ferry system today. Usually, there are at least 4 ferry lanes, with small ferries making non-stop, 5 minute, trips across Aransas Bay. You can expect traffic to move slowly but continuously. Not today. We were second in line at the last stoplight before the ferry area, when we noticed that the cars in front of us weren’t moving at all. We estimated an hour's wait before we’d get anyplace close to boarding.

If we had driven through that last light, we would have been stuck -- unable to get out of line. But now we could make a left turn and return the way we’d come. The distance was slightly longer, but it was also faster.

Next, we will head the rig north to the Texas Hill country. We’re planning on a night or two in Bandera, the self proclaimed cowboy capitol of Texas, with some loop trip or two into the surrounding areas. Then back to Alpine, store the rig and put the dog in jail. From there we jump on Amtrak for a taste of a Louisiana country-side Mardi Gras. [Pictures for this Postcard]

Postcard: Highway 9 to Columbus

January 30, 2009

Last December, we got a Jeep recall notice warning that the safety latches on either side of our '09's Wrangler’s hood could fail. The idea of the hood suddenly flinging itself into the windshield as we drove down the road was a bit disconcerting. Under most circumstances, I might not have been overly alarmed at this notice. After all, recalls are for other people's cars. But when a large truck passed us and we noticed the hood bounce up against its latches, we quickly made an appointment.

That appointment was very early, 7 am, so we left our cozy spot at Usery Mountain and headed to “downtown” Mesa. Meridian RV resort is typical of many others here, but a bit smaller than most. It remains an "RV only" park -- no park models here. A well landscaped entryway leads to an attractive, ranch-style clubhouse. About 200 closely spaced sites surround the clubhouse and its patio area. Here you’ll find a swimming pool, spa and even a putting green. Activities abound. Golf, hiking and ATV riding are especially popular. There are excursions to nearby attractions, such as the arboretum near Superior or Heard Museum in Phoenix. At least once a week, there’s some type of dinner, either potluck or catered. But after several nights with only cactus for company, it was hard to appreciate being cooped up in a corner, only feet from our next door neighbor, and with a bright overhead security light taking the place of the moon. Time to head for the wide open spaces again.

There’s now an easier way to circumvent the main arteries of the city. No more struggling through the traffic of the city of Chandler, south of Phoenix. No more jousting with the jams on Highway 60. When you're headed for the eastern part of this megalopolis, as we usually are, take Loop 202. This route joins Highway 87 just south of Chandler. Or you can continue on about 8 miles west to a junction with Interstate 10. On either route, the traffic is reasonably light, and the new highway is wide and smooth. Thank you, Arizona highways!

Our first destination was another town we frequently visit -- Casa Grande. Our park of choice here is Fiesta Grande. The park staffers are incredibly friendly, ready to help with any problems you might have. Each time we visit, it seems there are more park models, but that can be read as another sign of this park’s popularity. People just want to live here.

Casa Grande is also home to one of our favorite restaurants, BeDillons. We’ve managed to dine there almost every time we’ve been in Casa Grande. The restaurant is decorated in “old Arizona” style, with an extensive cactus entry garden. Unfortunately, the last time we were in town, it was Monday (they’re closed Mondays). This time, when Tom suggested dinner out, I didn’t hesitate. “I'd love to. It’s not Monday”. It took him a minute to figure out what I meant.

We’d planned on continuing east the next day, but got stopped by an Arizona cloudburst. Rain had been in the forecast, but you’re never sure what you’ll get in the desert. Often, what you experience is “virga”, rain that doesn’t even hit the ground. Not this time. It poured. We stayed in the rig, and watched while water cascaded down streets ill-equipped to deal with any amount of moisture, let alone a small flood.

Next morning, the sun was out and most traces of rain had disappeared -- so east we went...

The Hacienda RV Resort in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is always a pleasant RV stopover. The club house is beautifully decorated in Western motif, with huge fireplaces, inside and out, burning real logs. Each morning they have a full buffet breakfast -- cereal, waffles, eggs, specialty breads, coffee and juices. The knowledgeable staff behind the desk can tell you just where you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for. I’ve asked for directions for everything from grocery stores to do-it-yourself dog washes. Tickets to a show in town? A day pass to a nearby health club? Just ask.

We’ve been planning a special mid-February trip for several weeks. We’re taking Amtrak to New Orleans, and then heading into the Louisiana countryside for Mardi Gras. Our only problem has been deciding on our itinerary. From which town would we leave? Tucson? El Paso? Alpine? Our tickets in hand contemplated a round trip from El Paso. Then, we decided it would be more convenient to leave from Alpine, Texas. The trains come through Alpine at a civilized mid-afternoon hour., so even if Amtrak is late, (a virtual certainty), we probably wouldn't be boarding or returning at night. We had a place to board Barney, and had arranged with The Lost Alaskan RV park to store the rig. Now all we ha to do was change out tickets.

Amtrak is very flexible when it comes to changing plans. All you have to do is find an Amtrak station, and talk to the person in the ticket window. The closest station was in El Paso, only 40 miles from Las Cruces. And instead of just driving to El Paso and back to Las Cruces, Tom had found a loop trip. A small grey line on our map showed that we could drive New Mexico 9, starting near El Paso and crossing just across the Mexican border to to Columbus (NM), and then go north to Deming. At that point we'd rejoin the Interstate for the trip back to Las Cruces. An easy jaunt through wide open desert country. And once we found New Mexico 9, that’s exactly what it was.

While Tom changed our tickets, I asked a woman who worked in the Amtrak building if she knew how to get to Columbus. She’d never been to New Mexico. The ticket man found it hard to believe that anyone would want to go out where there was “absolutely nothing for miles and miles in any direction you’d care to go”.

Using a map I found in the El Paso Magazine, and with the help of Ms Garmin, we made baby steps toward Highway 9. We headed north back up the Interstate, headed west, then north again. The streets became progressively more narrow. Next we went south and once again west. Did we get lost? You bet! At one point, we missed a turn and found ourselves at the gate of a private community. The gate man gave us explicit instructions, and we were soon on our way.

The Amtrak representative notwithstanding, New Mexico 9 is a very lonesome road. Occasionally we passed a Border patrol vehicle, and once a truck roared past. But until we drew within 10 miles of Columbus. we saw no other vehicles. However, we did find evidence that people had been here. Every few miles, we saw piles of rocks. Some stacks contained only a few stones; others were piled high. Usually, but not always, they were on a rise of ground, and always near a fence. What were they for? Might these stacks mean something to a person making an illegal entry into the US? I have trouble believing someone was just out for an amusing afternoon of rock stacking -- but that seems the probable explanation.

Why did we want to go to Columbus, a tiny spot on the New Mexico map? Last summer, we met Frances and Bill Bryant at an RV rally dinner in Bend. At dinner one evening, they regaled us with stories about camp hosting at Pancho Villa State Park, Columbus, NM, and invited us to visit them. It’s as pretty a park as they described, with widely spaced sites lined with desert plants. Each site has a palapa, many with wind breaks to shelter the tables.

Rock hounding is big here. Bill showed us his collection, Frances told me some stories about their travels since summer, and they both encouraged us to cross the border (only three miles south) for lunch at the Pink Palace. We could park on the US side, and walk across the border.

As far east as El Paso, we’d seen signs for the Pink Palace. It was listed, along with Columbus, on the first distance marker on Highway 9 -- “Columbus 60 miles, Pink Palace 63 miles”.

It was just as easy as the Bryant’s had said. The large parking area right next to the border crossing point was full of cars and a couple of small RVs. Looking across into Palomas, MX, we could easily pick out the Pink Palace. Where else but in Mexico would you find that shade of pink?

The Palace, (actually called the Pink Store ) is a quintessential Mexican invention -- 3/4 curio shop and 1/4 restaurant. Racks of toy guitars hang from the rafters, hundreds of gaily painted ceramic birds and animals litter the shelves. You can buy candles or shop for furniture. Or stop in the attractive restaurant for lunch.

Talk about sensory overload. The walls of the restaurant are painted a cobalt blue, and hung with other Mexican artifacts, such as smiling suns or painted lizards. The tablecloths are basically yellow splashed with fruits and flowers. In one corner, a group of (wooden) Mariachis looked ready to burst into song, in another a tall metallic cactus reflected light in all directions.

After lunch, I snapped a picture of Pancho Villa, folk hero and modern day Robin Hood for many Mexicans , with his nemesis, Gen. Pershing. The statute depicted them shaking hands -- which is not exactly representative of historical fact.

We walked back across the border and headed north to Deming. From there we followed the Interstate back to Las Cruces.

We only drove Highway 9 half way across the state this time. It continues west all to the Arizona border. Now that we know how to get through El Paso, perhaps New Mexico 9 will be our route of choice on our return trip. For now, we’re off to Texas! (See pictures for this Postcard)

Postcard: The Road to Usery Mountain

January 19, 2009

I’ve come to the conclusion that Tom & I are an unusual “brand” of RVer -- we’ve yet to lose our wanderlust. While many RVers are content to spend months in one spot, it only takes us a week or two until we’re ready to be on the road again. So, while we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at The Springs, we knew when it was time to travel.

The only fact we were sure of was that we were Arizona bound. The question of destination, Tucson? Phoenix?, was very much open to debate. So we hedged our bets and took off toward Ajo, the small town 60 miles north of the Mexican border. From Ajo, we could go in either direction.

We spent one night in El Centro at the Desert Trails RV park. El Centro has a new WalMart supercenter, a Costco, and several grocery stores, so its a good spot for stocking up for your travels. Then we followed Interstate 8 to Yuma.

As Interstates go, Interstate 8 is my favorite. Perhaps because it is so far south and off the beaten track, it seems to have less truck traffic than other Interstates. There are few hills to navigate, and it has nice, wide lanes. I’m always sorry when it merges into Interstate 10 at Casa Grande.

But we didn’t go that far. At Gila Bend, we turned south on Arizona 85 and headed for Ajo. A few miles south of Gila Bend we entered the Barry M. Goldwater bombing Range. This range, which is comprised of 2.7 million acres on the ground, and also 57,000 cubic miles of airspace, is the third largest land-based military range in the US. It’s unusual NOT to see a fighter jet or formation of them roar overhead as you drive south.

When we’ve stayed in Ajo on previous trips, we’ve usually included a trip into Mexico to Puerto Penasco, ( Rocky Point). The lure for us has always been the the fish market, where you can get the freshest shrimp or catch-of-the-day fish, and perhaps persuade the seller to throw in a bunch of asparagus.

Not this trip, however. Two things dissuaded us. First, Rocky Point has grown from being a sleepy Mexican city to something more akin to Cabo San Lucas, with condos and hotels springing up all around. Second, the spread of Mexican crime is something we cannot ignore. Some say that American papers eagerly jump on any news of border town crime, and the least incident will be blown out of proportion. But when the killings happened in Sonoyita, the small town just south of Lukeville, it made us think twice about the trip. We thought we knew Sonoyita. We’d browsed the stores (especially the curio shops) on our trips to and from Rocky Point. This trip, though, we decided that the shrimp just weren’t worth it. Maybe next year.

Our campground of choice in Ajo is the Shadow Ridge RV resort, the southernmost resort in town. The sites are a bit narrow; broken corners of many concrete patio pads attest to owners’ attempts to get their rigs in straight. But most of the sites are rimmed with shrubs, the restrooms are impeccable, and there’s a good “doggy” walk area where bunnies abound.

What to do in a small desert town? Get the Tuesday afternoon paper and see what’s happening here. You’ll discover what’s up at the golf course, and which of the many service clubs are sponsoring dinners. Take one of the many back country trips. Several times we’ve taken the Ajo Scenic Loop trip, an 11 mile drive around “A” Mountain, (so called for the large A on its eastern slope). This is a well graded gravel road, easily accessed by a standard passenger car. If you’re feeling a bit (a lot) more adventurous, it’s possible to go even further. Venture out into the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge (“CPNWR”) or the Barry M. Goldwater range.

The Visitor Center for both of these areas is located on the north side of town. One room showcases the birds and animals you’ll see in the refuge, and is also the place where a mandatory safety film is shown. It can be dangerous on the range, there are few gates, signs or other warnings which will prevent an unwary guest from inadvertently wandering into a “hot” area. It’s conceivable you could wind up in an area where training exercises, with live ammunition, would occur.

Because of this possibility, if you want to enter either the CPNWR or the Goldwater range, in addition to viewing the film, you must also fill out a Hold Harmless agreement. Next, you get a listing of the Visitor regulations for these areas. These regulations include not only the warnings about unexploded ordnance, but also problems with illegals which may occur along the border. The regs note there are no sources of safe drinking water, and tell you to avoid abandoned mines and well shafts. Further, you are not allowed to collect any firewood or other vegetation. Camping is allowed, but no more than 50 feet off the road. There are no services, you must pack everything in, and pack it back out. Finally, you are given a telephone number to call before you enter either the Refuge or the Range.

The helpful woman at the visitor center told us that the most popular spot to visit is the Charlie Bell Pass in the Growler Mountains. The pass is only 20 miles west of Ajo. but you should plan on a 2 hour drive to get there. This place is your best chance to see the endangered desert pronghorn or desert bighorn sheep, and the mountains are reportedly a great place for hiking.

But we didn’t get to go. After filling out all the paperwork, receiving the regulations and with maps in hand, we learned that for the next two days, Charlie Bell was off limits.

Blame it on the Sonoran Pronghorn Antelope. In an attempt to revive this gravely
endangered population, each year several are captured and placed in “pens” (areas more than a mile square), for breeding. When the young are 2 years old, they are captured (tranquilized) and transported into the Growler Valley, the area east of the Growler Mountains. Here it is hoped they will join an already existing herd.

Our timing was exactly wrong. The captures were scheduled for today and tomorrow, and our stay in Ajo was too short to wait for the area’s reopening. So, even though we now had the paperwork finished and our permits in hand, we decided to postpone our trip for another time. Today, we’d revisit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

It’s only 35 miles south to the Monument and Twin Peaks Campground. For years we’ve camped in this beautiful campground. It’s all dry camping, but in most of the sites you can run a generator during certain prescribed hours. The views are tremendous, out over a valley with the lights of Sonoyita in the distance.

In the late 1990s, Twin Peaks was so popular with RVers that a sign was placed near the entrance to the Monument. It read, “Campground full by _____ “. The blank space was filled in daily by a Park Ranger based on how quickly the park had filled the previous day -- such as "11 AM", or "1 PM". Since the rules were “first come, first served”, we’d hurry down the road, hoping to overtake other RVs on the straight stretches, and get to the campground first. Now the campground rarely fills, and even the sign is long gone.

Due to the increase of illegals crossing the border, large parts of the Monument are no longer open to travel, and many RVers are avoiding the Monument and its campground altogether. Even in the middle of January there were only about 30 rigs in the park. I hope the future holds better things for this beautiful place.

From Ajo, we headed north, north to Phoenix and Usery Mountain Regional park. We retraced our steps up Highway 85 and joined the Interstate (10 this time) about 40 miles west of Phoenix. Phoenix has an elaborate set of “loops”, freeways which attempt to alleviate some of the traffic problems of this big city. We followed the 10 to loop 202 and headed east to Usery.

We were lucky to get here on a Thursday afternoon, before the crush of the weekend campers arrived. By Friday morning the park was completely full, with a half dozen campers in the overflow area. We found a site on the outer ring of the park, and have a level parking place about 50 feet long and 40 feet wide. It’s approximately 75 feet to our nearest neighbor, a route that would take us around the creosote bushes, past the ocotillo and cholla, and skirting the saguaro. In back of us is a concrete picnic table, fire ring, barbeque and acres of desert. I cannot see a road, although I know the Usery Pass road is about a mile west. Tonight the lights of Mesa will glimmer on the horizon. The city is close, but not too close. Our night noises will be the coyote song and a gentle “hoo-hoo” of an owl.

We’ll be here for several days before heading south to Tucson. That is, unless we decide to stay a bit longer.

Postcard: Snow Birding

January 4, 2009

I was surprised to find a definition of “snow bird “ in my online dictionary. It states that a snow bird is “a northerner who moves to a warmer southern state in the winter”. No longer skiers, Tom & I have been snowbirds for years, but this year, we reversed the trend. In mid-December, we headed back to Oregon for Christmas with our kids and grandkids. As usual we’d been checking the weather, and fully expected rain in Florence and at least a little snow in Bend. What we didn’t expect was the amount of snow we’d get. It seemed the weather gods had just been waiting for our return to dump truckloads of the white stuff on us. For 14 days, we never took the jeep out of 4WD and the temperatures never rose above freezing. We walked the dog each morning in 2+ feet of white drifts. Barney loved it. The only way he could maneuver through all that snow was by leaping up and over the drifts; and occasionally when he landed he’d disappear in a shower of white. At first, the snow wasn’t deep enough to keep us from the lonesome Forest Service lane that is a favorite “doggy walk” area. But as the days went on, and the snow continued to fall, the lane became totally blanketed in deep snow, and driving became ever more difficult. One morning, tell-tale tire tracks in the ditches on either side showed where at least two drivers had missed the road entirely. Tow truck time.

However, Bend does get some beautiful winter weather. On those few days when the snow didn’t fall, the sun on the nearby pines and on the open spaces marking the golf course painted spectacular pictures of light and shadow, and our kids reported fantastic skiing at nearby Mt. Bachelor. But while all that sunshine appeared warm when viewed from the comfort of our living room, outside it was bitterly cold, with highs sometimes only in the single digits. Having all our family with us for a white Christmas was a delight, but our snowbird blood demanded a return to warmer climes. But when would the weather ease up?

The weather forecasts were not encouraging, with each day a carbon copy of the one before. When it wasn’t going to snow, it was going to rain, and that condition could conceivably make the roadways even more treacherous. However, our kids were returning north on the Saturday after Christmas, and our townhome was going to feel very empty with only the two of us there. We decided to chance it. After we said good bye and waved everyone out of the driveway,Tom finished packing the jeep, we loaded the dog and started south.

The bad news was that it took us close to 4 hours just to get to Klamath Falls, a distance of only 140 miles. The good news was that, just south of town, the snow suddenly disappeared from the road. Even on the two 5,000 foot passes on the flanks of Mt. Shasta, the roadway remained bare. Suddenly, we didn’t need 4WD any more. And just as suddenly, the idea that we’d be wearing shorts and swimming laps in an outdoor pool didn’t seem so far-fetched. We arrived in Redding around dinner, tired but happy to be on our way.

We left early the next morning, figuring that Sunday traffic would be light, and we’d sail through Sacramento and Stockton. Then it would be an easy drive down the San Joaquin valley somewhere past Bakersfield for the next night, and into Borrego Springs the following morning.

So we thought. What we hadn’t factored into our plans was that this was the Sunday after Christmas. It seemed that at least half the population of the Los Angeles area had gone north for the holiday, and they were all headed home along Interstate 5 this very afternoon. Most of them were driving at speeds exceeding 75 mph, and all of them consider tailgating a competitive sport. No one has any compunction about weaving across traffic lanes, so this portion of the drive demanded our undivided attention. Not being a NASCAR, (or California), driver, I tend to leave quite a distance between our jeep and the cars ahead, but this space only tempted other drivers to cut right in front of me. And when these lanes of fast moving cars had to pass a truck or slow moving RV, they’d hit the brakes, suddenly and hard. We were glad to leave the freeway and cut across to Tehatchapi.

The next morning, the traffic snarls of Sunday were gone. There were relatively few cars on 1-10, and, for once virtually no wind. By early afternoon we were back at The Springs, the coach had been rescued from storage, and we were settled down for a week of year-end football watching. Back to lazy mornings, afternoon laps in the pool, and clear, starry nights. Back to exploring the desert backroads of Borrego.

There are dozens of off road trips to be taken in the Anza Borrego area. Some are suitable for low clearance passenger cars, but we feel more comfortable in a high clearance vehicle, preferably one with 4WD. On one of our first visits here, I found a book in the Visitor Center which describes these drives in great detail. “The Anza-Borrego Desert Region” by Lowell and Diana Lindsay, has been essential as we explore the backcountry. Not only does it indicate the different roads and trails (and uses GPS coordinates!), it gives short histories of those areas it covers. It showed us the way south to Split Mountain. It took us north up Coyote Creek to Middle Willows. (This area has since been closed to protect the endangered Bell’s Vireo). The Lindsay’s helped us find the areas where the Kumeyaay Indians ground seeds in morteros and painted pictographs on the surrounding canyon walls. We learned about the “experiment in primitive living” conducted by the Marshall South family at Yaquitepec (Ghost Mountain). Relying on their descriptions, we’ve made several trips out to Font’s Point, the main overlook of the Borrego Badlands. Of all these, one of our favorite places remains “The Slot”.

The Slot is a canyon so narrow that in a couple of places you have to turn sideways to squeeze between its walls. To get there, we again relied on the Lindsay’s book. Drive out Highway 78 (one of the main east-west roads through the Park, and turn off at the Buttes Pass road. This is an easy-to-miss, 2 mile dirt road which climbs up over low desert hills to a wide spot the locals call the parking area. (Since this is a popular spot and easily accessible by any type of vehicle, you’ll usually have company here). Now it’s only a short scramble down into The Slot itself. Once you’ve squeezed your way through, you can continue walking about a half mile to the foot of the Borrego Mountain Dropoff, a hill so steep, sandy and with such huge ruts marring its surface that driving down it is only for the very brave or exceptionally foolhardy. On one of our visits, I did see a jeep run down the dropoff. Before the driver took off, he told us that it really wasn’t too hard so long as you “don’t hit the brakes!” It didn’t seem to bother him at all that his car was leaning first one way and then the other at what seemed to me to be death defying angles. At the bottom of this incredible hill, there’s a “do not enter” sign facing any traffic that might be going the other way. If driving down is difficult, driving up would be inviting catastrophe, and the sign seems superfluous.

That’s one way to get to The Slot. The other is from the bottom. This is definitely a 4WD trip, following the San Felipe Wash to its junction with the Borrego Mountain Wash. Be a bit careful, signs around here are short brown stakes with names printed vertically in white paint. Some are easily seen; others may be hiding under bushes or behind trees.

Bill Burke, 4WD drive guru, told that us that our jeep would have no trouble traversing The Slot from the bottom; that the terrain was perfectly passible, and there were only a few rocks at the end. We found those “few rocks” in a narrow, uphill climb, with tire grabbing ruts between them, and rock outcroppings which threatened to dig deep scrapes along the sides of our new jeep. (Bill’s jeep bears the scars of multiple off road trips). Tom negotiated most of the climb, but when we found a place wide enough to turn around, we did just that and continued on foot. In only a few hundred feet we exited those treacherous rocks, and found ourselves at the bottom of the Borrego Mountain Dropoff.

Another favorite desert drive, one a bit less challenging, is the road to Hawk Canyon. Take the same cutoff as for The Slot parking area, but continue on to a beautiful little valley. The walls of this valley are a gorgeous salmon color, and high on the cliffs on the southwest side, you can see the raptor nests that give the canyon its name. We hiked up the canyon as far as we could without resorting to rock climbing, and turned for home. Feeling much more familiar with this part of the desert after our previous trip, we continued on downhill to San Felipe Wash and made this a desert loop.

We are nearing the end of our Borrego Springs stay. Next week, we’ll spend a couple of days on the coast at Ventura while Tom meets with the Sambassadors and State Directors of the Good Sam Club. Two nights at the Palm Canyon State park just north of Borrego will finish the California portion of our winter travels. We’ll then head for Arizona. We’re anticipating a Big Bend adventure this year, and also have reservations on Amtrak for a Cajun country Mardi Gras. For the next few weeks, we’ll be the type of snowbird familiar to everyone -- fair weather birds. [See Pictures]